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Finance and accounting departments are staffed with numbers-oriented, naturally analytical people. Strong analytic skills are essential if a finance department is to deliver deep insights into performance and visibility into emerging opportunities and challenges. The conclusions of analyses enable fast, fully informed business decisions by executives and managers. Conversely, flawed analyses undermine the performance of a company. So it was good news that in our Office of Finance benchmark research 62 percent of participants rated the analytical skills of their finance organization as above average or excellent.
The research finds that having strong analytical skills is associated with good analytic practices. It’s important to have an effective process for creating analyses that enable effective management of a corporation. Having strong analytical skills is a key ingredient of being able to manage that process. Having skills and having an effective process are linked. Almost all (89%) companies with excellent analytic skills have a process for creating finance analytics that works well or very well, compared to half of organizations in which skills are average and none in those where they are below average. Furthermore, almost all (92%) companies with excellent or above-average finance analytic skills have been able to use analytics and performance indicators to improve individual or business performance. By comparison, fewer than one-third (30%) of those with average or below average skills were able to do so.
Having these skills is good, but the research suggests that most finance departments don’t use them to full potential. When we dug into some of the underlying data, a less rosy picture of the state of analytics in finance departments emerged, including somewhat pedestrian use of analytics. Most companies are good at handling the basics, such as financial statement analyses, and in creating and assessing models used in forecasting and planning. However, very few (just 12%) of those that have above-average or excellent skills use predictive analytics; only one-fifth of them apply relevant economic and market indicators or price optimization techniques; and just one-third apply profitability analysis to products and customers on a regular basis. Staying above average or better in applying analytics in today’s environment means going beyond well-established financial analyses. Corporations today have vast amounts of business data that demand the application of advanced techniques. Predictive analytics is a valuable tool that can harness this big data to create more nuanced and more accurate forecasts as well as alert executives and managers to threats and opportunities earlier than ever. In addition greater availability and accessibility of external information enables organizations to produce better insights into how economic, market and financial markets affect their performance.
Another issue that can hinder a finance department’s efforts in delivering valuable analytics is the timeliness with which they provide it. Only one-third (31%) are able to provide information on a timely basis. Just over half (56%) said that the information they provide is somewhat timely, which in practice can mean a day late and a dollar short when key decisions have to be made immediately. Two related reasons why information may not be timely are a lack of automation and overreliance on desktop spreadsheets for reporting. Spreadsheets are indispensable for personal productivity and ad hoc analysis and reporting. However, they are almost always the wrong choice for routine business analysis and periodic reporting because using them can be very time-consuming. Because it takes so long to prepare the analysis and generate a report distributed through email, information is less timely and often less valuable.
Senior finance executives need better understanding of advanced analytics and how these techniques can be employed to improve the performance of the finance organization and serve the needs of the rest of the company. Desktop spreadsheets are an overused technology that wastes time when applied to collaborative or repetitive enterprise-wide analytics. In practice, they are incapable of delivering the forward-looking analytics listed above. They are not difficult to replace if there is a will to do so. Advanced analytic software is becoming increasingly more affordable and more accessible to business analysts. Often they use a Microsoft Excel interface because of its familiarity and therefore require less training to get users to a reasonable level of proficiency.
What constitutes excellent and above-average analytical skills is evolving daily as new tools and techniques become mainstream. Senior finance department executives must remain current on what’s possible and push their department to keep up. To make this possible, as I have written, they must set their sights higher and find ways to eliminate time-wasting manual processes so there’s time for their analysts to extend their highly valued skills.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
One of the charitable causes to which I devote time puts on an annual vintage car show. The Concours d’Élegance dates back to 17th century France, when wealthy aristocrats gathered with judges on a field to determine who had the best carriages and the most beautiful horsepower. Our event serves as the centerpiece of a broader mission to raise money for several charitable organizations. One of my roles is to keep track of the cars entered in the show, and in that capacity I designed an online registration system. I’ve been struck by how my experiences with a simple IT system have been a microcosm of the issues that people encounter in designing, administering and using far more sophisticated ones. My most important take-away from this year’s event is the importance of self-service reporting. I suspect that most senior corporate executives – especially those in Finance – fail to appreciate the value of self-service reporting. It frees up the considerable resources organizations collectively waste on unproductive work, and it increases responsiveness and agility of the company as a whole.
Electronic reporting began as a solution to paper print-outs, reducing the resources required to transmit information needed by individuals and making it easier for them to find information. Over the past couple of decades, these enterprise reports also have become much easier for IT professionals to create and maintain, but they are still time-consuming and aren’t particularly flexible. Rather than have their IT department create another version of a report, people often copy an electronic report, paste it into a spreadsheet, reconfigure the information to suit their needs and distribute the modified spreadsheet to a group of people. For this and other reasons IT departments have found it difficult to get business people to stop using spreadsheets. Our benchmark research on spreadsheets finds this is the number-one impediment to change. Spreadsheet users value control and flexibility. This is precisely what self-service reporting delivers without the time-consuming hassle of manually creating and distributing spreadsheet reports.
It’s useful to think of self-service reporting as an attitude and approach to using information technology than as a specific software product or category. It starts with the basic assumption that individuals in organizations must be able to retrieve information they need from the systems they use. This does not replace periodic enterprise reporting, dashboards, scorecards and other such “push” communication methods. This is not the once-voguish concept of “democratizing business intelligence” either; that was still too complicated for the vast majority of users. It’s more like replacing telephone operators with a direct dial system. (Note to readers under 40 years old: Once upon a time it required human intervention to connect your phone to someone else’s.) The goal of self-service reporting is to make broad sets of data readily available and give people the ability to access it (subject to permissions) as well as easily organize and display it in the form and format that works best for them.
In the early days of business computing, simply collecting and having access to company data was a breakthrough. Over the past decades, corporations automated and instrumented a broad range of functions, and the challenge lay in collecting and managing the data. Although companies still face many issues in data management, devolving reporting to the individual is now a critical issue companies must address. Well-designed self-service reporting improves the productivity of individuals in both IT and the rest of the organization. The controller of a midsize company recently told me people had been spending one-and-a-half days per month creating reports for senior executives and operating managers after the monthly and quarterly accounting close. Talk about unproductive use of resources! This is an extreme example but emblematic of time routinely wasted on something individuals ought be able to do on their own. From the IT side, far too much time is devoted to creating and maintaining reports – it’s akin to still having switchboard operators on staff to route calls.
Self-service reporting exists both as a feature of enterprise applications and in stand-alone products designed to work with applications that lack this capability. In deciding whether to replace existing software and in any vendor selection process, it’s important to assess benefits of self-service reporting capabilities. This is especially true as mobility increasingly is built into enterprise business applications. Anytime, anywhere access to information is one of the most important reasons why companies invest in mobility and demand this capability in the software they buy. Being able to drill down and around in the data contained in such reports provides a powerful incentive to replace spreadsheets. But there are also stand-alone products that can provide self-service reporting capabilities within legacy systems.
For our service organization this past year I still created a limited number of spreadsheets for individuals and groups that are not on our system. The only data issues we had were created when someone copied and pasted information from our reports into another spreadsheet. Errors are inevitable, and even in our local event there are unfortunate consequences when they occur. For example, telling someone who has just spent hundreds of hours preparing his or her car that the vehicle is not eligible for an award because it was not on the list of judged cars (even though our system showed that it was supposed to be judged) provokes the same level of irate response one might expect when a CFO is informed that there’s a material error in the published financial statements.
Self-service reporting is fast becoming a standard capability within businesses. It’s part of a generational change that is redefining corporate computing. People beyond a certain age still expect information to be given to them. Younger people want to get the information they need themselves and expect to have the ability to do so. IT departments must identify opportunities to offer self-service reporting and implement it wherever possible. Business users – especially those in finance roles – should familiarize themselves with self-service reporting – especially stand-alone tools that they can use and administer – and implement it wherever it is feasible.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research